Estonian ecological sciences can be traced back to the early 1800s, with the founding of two landmark institutions at the University of Tartu: the Natural History Museum and the Botanical Garden. Both were preceded by the Tartu Observatory where meteorological observations began in 1783.
Estonia makes up a tiny sliver of our planet’s surface, but plant life in this infinitesimal sample is incredibly rich in variety. And therein lies the main challenge to plant ecologists in the country: explain the causes of this variety and contrast.
Macroecology and dark diversity
Macroecology is a relatively young science that looks at consistent ecological patterns through a statistical lens. It analyses the characteristics of natural communities and species, including phylogenesis and territorial reach.
Estonian macroecologists led by University of Tartu botanics professor Meelis Pärtel have found that in terms of diversity, potentially absent species are just as important than present ones. These absent communities have come to be known as “dark diversity”. While impossible to measure directly, its size can be estimated.
Increasing attention is being paid to the essence and dynamics of substance flows generated in natural environments or caused/influenced by human activity. Reducing the proportion and possibly adverse impact of human-caused chemical burden is a priority in such work. The leading scientist in this area is Ülo Mander of the University of Tartu. He is currently a visiting professor at IRSTEA in France where he is part of a team battling pesticides that threaten groundwater reserves.
Plant physiology and biosphere-atmosphere interaction
Ecotechnologies is one of the core research areas at ENVIRON, the Centre of Excellence in Environmental Adaptation. In 2012, professor Ülo Niinemets received a European Research Council Advanced Grant for “SIP-VOL+”, a research project that studies the effect of plants’ airborn stress emissions on the Earth’s climate. Niinemets is tackling a global problem from a completely new angle that combines interdisciplinary research on molecular, organ, plant, commuinty, biome, and planetary levels.
Estonian researchers have built several databases such as eBiodiversity, a web interface that aims to use scientific methodology in recording the entire Estonian natural environment. It has data on nearly 25,000 species found in Estonia.
Estonian scientists, headed by Urmas Kõljalg, also led the development of UNITE, a global unified system for DNA-based fungal species. Simply put, UNITE is becoming a world standard in using gene sequencing to classify fungi. As a result, Thomson Reuters has included the UNITE database in its Data Citation Index.
The Estonian government is making long-term investments in ecology-related science infrastructure. The goal here is to create a central infrastructure of life-sciences archives.
The Estonian Environmental Observatory (website in Estonian) is a network of experimental stations for environmental research. It integrates atmospheric, climate and ground-based research, biodiversity research and marine studies. The observatory analyses substance and energy flows between the atmosphere and the biosphere and studies ecosystems as they respond and adapt to global changes in terms of diversity and productivity.